If art critics can sense pain and joy from the drips of a Jackson Pollock and can feel anguish and bliss from the blunt strokes of a Picasso, then surely theater critics can grasp the intended message in a 90-minute play. But Latinx artists say that is not always the case, and that their work is often reviewed through a critical but uninformed lens.
In response to the problem, Chicago's Latinx artists are taking control of their own critical narratives: The Alliance of Latinx Theater Artists of Chicago ( ALTA ) will hold the First Annual ALTA Awards, taking place on October 8, 2018 at Victory Gardens.
No longer waiting to be recognized
"The awards are intentionally for and by Latinx people," said actor and ALTA membership director Hannah Gomez ( she/her/hers ). "Historically, Latinx artists and companies have been neglected, ignored, or misunderstood by the majority of publications, awarding bodies, and theater institutions; these awards seek to shift the balance of power in the pursuit of equity.
"ALTA has always been dedicated to giving the Latinx talent in Chicago more tools to succeed in this exceedingly harsh and biased industry," she said.
Gomez isn't waiting for change to take hold on its own. "We are no longer waiting to be recognized," she said.
Lauding artists invisible at the Jeffs
Currently, the Chicago's theater awards behemoth is the 50-year-old Jeff Committee. Since its founding in 1968, Jeff Committee membership has skewed predominantly white and older. Chicago's Black Theater Alliance Awards are in their 20th year or recognizing Black Excellence in theater. Other awards organizationsthe Orgies, TimeOut's Chicago Theater Awardshave come and gone over the years.
The inaugural ALTA Awards will be hosted by Steppenwolf Ensemble member and Northwestern University theater professor Sandra Marquez, an acclaimed veteran of Chicago theater also known for her television roles in Empire, Chicago Med, Boss and Chicago Justice, among others. 16th Street Theatre Artistic Associate Miguel Nunez will co-host the awards with Marquez.
Some of the ALTA award categories don't even exist to the Jeff Awardsthese include Art as Activism, Stage Management and Casting Direction. Other ALTA categories are Outstanding Play, Musical, Director of a Play, Fight Choreography, Costume Design and Sound Design. Any Latinx-identified theater maker or creator in Chicagoland can be nominated whether they are ALTA members or not.
ALTA has been garnering nominations from the public for months. The final list of nominees will be announced in coming weeks.
Seeing the whale and 'willfully' missing the point
You don't have to look far to find examples of Gomez' assertion that Latinx works can be misunderstood by mainstream critics. Take, for example, some of the critical reactions to Kristiana Rae Colon's Tilikum, which closed July 29 at the Victory Gardens.
ALTA member Lucas Garcia ( they/them/theirs ) points to the Chicago Tribune's review of Tilikum, which surmised the piece was about a captive orca and made no mention of Colon's driving metaphor ( which was literally spelled out in the program ): Tilikum's story was a commentary on the impact of mass incarceration of Black men and the legacy of slavery. To Garcia, the Trib's failure to note Colon's overarching metaphor "seemed almost willfully done."
"When you work so hard to put ( a show ) together and a professional theater critic misconstrues the message, it can be confusing. When the fog of confusion lifts, frustration sets in," they said.
When critics dismiss or misinterpret Latinx works, the impact is real. Gomez and Garcia point out that negative or uninformed press can help marginalize the workleading to a lack of recognition for its creators, writers, producers, stage managers and its actors.
Critics, Gomez added, impact both theater-goers and theater artists. While the ALTA awards can help diminish that impact, Garcia hopes for a time when Latinx works are truly, consistently "seen," and wheninstead of dismissing workreviewers provoke a conversation that continues long after the curtains have closed.
Breaking institutional barriers
When Garcia moved to Chicago from New Mexico, they found ALTA a "godsend." Garcia came here with no connectionsafter contacting ALTA, they found themselves among 240 other artists with a passion for Latinx work.
ALTA members access to "free resources, whether you have formal training or not," said Gomez. Those resources include access to a database of Latinx artists, discounted theater tickets, networking and professional development events and free advertising on ALTA's website. There are no dues to join ALTA. The group's big-picture goal: Breaking down institutional barriers that can marginalize work by Latinx artists.
The all-volunteer ALTA organization was co-founded in 2010 by Tanya Saracho, once a Chicago playwright ( Enfrescada, Fade ) and now a showrunner in Los Angeles heading up Starz' acclaimed Vida and writing for programs including How to Get Away With Murder. ALTA's co-founder is actor/director Ricardo Gutierrez, the Executive Artistic Director of Teatro Vista who is known for his work with Nosotros, an organization that supports Latino entertainment artists in the Los Angeles area, and The Canterbury Theatre in Indiana.
"ALTA is a landing place, a way to face geographic and economic challenges that may keep Latinx artists from forming a coherent group," Garcia said. The awards, they added, will hopefully help address those challenges.
For more information on ALTA membership, events, the ALTA Awards and other resources, visit ALTAChicago.org .